Vienna, May 17 – Liberalism in Russia, Irina Pavlova says, has been “completely and finally discredited” over the last two decades not only because of “the powerful propaganda campaign” unleashed against it by its enemies “but also by the actions of the liberals themselves either when they are in power or dealing with it.”
In a commentary posted on the Grani.ru site today, the Russian commentator says that the country’s “liberal elite” has been all too willing to adapt itself to those in power who attack it “being afraid of losing its privileges and the capital it received after the August 1991 revolution” even if that means sacrificing the principles of democracy (grani.ru/opinion/m.178068.html).
By the mid-1990s, she continues, “the majority of liberals supported the idea of ‘a liberal empire’ and then backed the actions of the statist Vladimir Putin.” Now, “having been disappointed, they are [nonetheless and once again] placing their hopes on ‘a thaw’ and the modernization offered by Dmitry Medvedev” and his associates.
“Although Russian reality does not give any basis for doubting in Medvedev’s attachment to the course of his predecessor, some liberals are able to experience pride in the powers that be and consider that the Russian government ‘today with all its shortcomings is the most open and free for all its centuries-long history.’”
In fact, Pavlova continues, “the actions of ‘the liberal’ Medvedev in essence are directed at attracting extra-systemic or disappointed liberals into the space of the powers that be and driving out in this way the basis of their opposition to the regime,” a strategy that appears to be working not only among the liberal elite but among the Russian population as a whole.
“In the current hopes for Medvedev,” displayed by the Russian Liberal Inheritance group, Pavlova writes, “the fundamental defect of Russian liberalism is clearly shown: its historical infantilism, its constant striving to rely on the powers that be, to await reform from above, and to always be ready to serve the powers that be rather than the people.”
If Russia is to prosper, that has to change, she argues. “Russian liberals must grow up not in order to curry favor with the powers that be but in order to reflect on how to recover before it is too late the trust of the people.” As a start, Pavlova says, liberals need to stop referring to the people in negative terms and to stop ignoring the growing influence of Russian nationalism.
For most Russian liberals, the word “nationalism” is anathema, and consequently, Pavlova says, relatively few of them have taken note of the emergence over the last few years of “a healthy, European oriented tendency” among Russian nationalists, one that is articulated by Konstantin Krylov, the editor of “Questions of Nationalism” (nazdem.info/texts/110).
Unlike those who worship the Russian state, Krylov agrees with the views of liberals that “power in Russia bears the character of an occupation, with the country today being ‘administered like a colony.’” The powers that be are interested not in the well-being of the population but on “receiving [for itself] profits which are then sent abroad.”
Because that is what the powers that be care about, they are interested above all that “the people be atomized and divided since ‘all forms of self-organization interfere with the activities of the colonizers.’” And, Pavlova points out, Krylov agrees that “for a normal country, the constitution is the most important defining document.”
“But in a colony,” Krylov says as Pavlova recounts, “the most important thing are bureaucratic instructions, and a constitution is only a decoration. … In Russia, an instruction given to an officer by his boss is always more important than a constitution. Now the entire weight of the state machine is based on the fact that Russians do not feel themselves a nation.”
“When a sufficiently large number of people identify themselves as a nation, the situation will change in a very serious way,” Krylov says. In Pavlova’s terms, that will mean the end of the “Tatar-Mongol civilization” that has dominated Russia for the last 800 years and led those in power over it to view the country as a colony rather than a nation state.
According to Pavlova, “the task of the new liberals, if they are interested in having both Russia and themselves remain historical actors, is to promote the transformation of the people [as the residents of any colony can be] into a nation,” whose value is far greater than that of the powers that be.
To do that, she writes, the new liberals and “the European-oriented forces of Russian nationalism” need to work together “not only in the area of the defense of human rights and civic enlightenment” but also in the sectors of promoting small and mid-sized business “with the goal of strengthening the rights of private property” and the creation of a real middle class.
If the two come together, they will be able to “increase civic pressure on the powers that be and force it to act in the interests of society.” But achieving cooperation won’t be easy. Indeed, Pavlova says, it is “a task of exceptional complexity, especially” because the current powers that be have a great deal of experience in dividing and discrediting the opposition.
Unfortunately, Russian intellectuals must overcome a problem in their own ranks first, she says. Few of them have been willing or able to “demonstrate a liberal European approach to the complex question about nationalism.” Indeed, Pavlova says, to find one who has done so in a most serious way, one must look back to 1991.
In the March 6 “Literaturnaya gazeta” of that year, Merab Mamardashvili argued in an article entitled “Nihilism and the Nationality Question” that the national movements in the USSR were “the form[s] in which civil society was being born and the problems of civic freedoms being decided. Or, as the Romans said, the res publica or public thing was being made.”
That was certainly true for many of the non-Russian nations; it is not yet true for the Russian people. But Pavlova concludes, “if the country has a way out to a normal future, then it will lie only along the path of transforming the people into a decisive civic force of its country and the overcoming of the occupation regime of the Russian powers that be.”